Journey into the Whirlwind
The Deserted House
These books are concerned with the Stalinist purges. In Journey into the Whirlwind Eugenia Ginzburg sets down the chronicle of her own imprisonment and exile; in The Deserted House Lydia Chukovskaya writes a short novel about what she saw in 1937. The document seems a nightmare fantasy, the novelette a document.
When Kirov was assassinated in 1934—this was the prelude to 1937—Eugenia Ginzburg was teaching in the Teachers’ Training Institute at Kazan and editing a local paper, Red Tartary. Her husband held a prominent position in the Tartar Province Committee of the Party, and they were both loyal members of the Party. She herself would have given her life for it. When newspapers began to carry reports of arrests and confessions, the first reaction was bewilderment: one had not expected treachery from trusted Communists. Next, when persons one knew well were taken, bewilderment changed to consternation. Some, foreseeing trouble, took flight. Eugenia Ginzburg refused. Mistakes were being made, she reasoned, they would be corrected; this was no time for a Communist to hide from the Party. Then she herself was arrested, thrown into jail, questioned under torture, dragged from prison to prison, kept in solitary confinement or, with masses of other unfortunates, in overcrowded places, deprived of air, of food, of water, transported finally to the freezing Siberian tayga and forced to work beyond her strength. That she survived physically is wonderful, that she came through spiritually, her judgment unimpaired and her mind capable of recreating the years of horror tolerantly, warmly, and with zest, is very grand indeed. Historically her book is important as an authentic record of the times. Humanly, it is a story for all time.
Historically, it throws light on how charges were brought and investigations conducted, on how prisoners were treated and how and why confessions were made. Accusations were couched in nauseating stereotypes: “Trotskyite terrorist counter-revolutionary group, having as its aim the restoration of capitalism and the physical annihilation of the leaders of the Party and the government.” To attempt a reasonable defense, when rationality was abandoned and cases were prejudged, was naïve and useless. Might she be told, Eugenia Ginzburg asked, the name of the person against whom she was supposed to have plotted? Didn’t she know, she was asked in reply, that Kirov was assassinated in Leningrad? “Yes, but it wasn’t I who killed him…. And besides I have never lived in Leningrad.” “He was murdered by those who share your views. That makes you morally and criminally responsible.” From such an official line as this, there was neither appeal nor redress, and “enemies of the people” became “non-persons” delivered into the hands of creatures that were no longer men. Confessions were made for various reasons: from weakness, fear, confusion, and also, amazingly, out of patriotism, on the quixotic assumption that sheer exaggeration would restore common sense. Admit the most preposterous crimes, implicate the most loyal comrades, and the colossal absurdity of what was going on would become …